How do other children act when they’re angry with each other?

“Katie, let’s play house. I’m the mommy, you’re the baby.”

“No, I’m the mommy, or I won’t be your friend.”

“Then you’re not coming to my birthday party.”

This exchange is typical of what preschoolers say when they argue. They may play well together and then suddenly tell each other, “I hate you,” or, “You’re a dummy.” Young children, whose emotions are close to the surface, concentrate on their immediate wishes and needs. And because they’re egocentric, they don’t consider each other’s feelings but let their anger come out in harsh words or actions. Some children give in when spoken to in this way, while others either fights back and persist until they get their way, or try to find an adult to help.

Parents wonder what to do when children are angry with each other. They should begin by setting limits on their child, who is egocentric and needs this adult guidance; on her own, she doesn’t think about others when she’s mad. However, if parents restrict her expressions of anger too much, she may end up believing that anger is bad and inappropriate. When she’s kept from expressing her feelings, they’ll be released in other ways. She may become destructive with her toys or while playing, manipulative with her parents or friends, or tricky as she tries to get other children to do what she wants. She needs a chance to let her anger out, and even if her parents don’t like to hear her say, “I hate you! I’m not playing with you,” they should realize that children are not very good at expressing their exact thoughts. Harsh words are sometimes a young child’s way of letting her strongest negative feelings be known.

When it seems appropriate, parents can let arguing children try to work out their differences themselves as long as no one is getting physically injured or having his or her feelings terribly hurt. Children are sometimes surprisingly good at settling their arguments and can gradually learn to work problems out with one another. A child who seldom has a chance to settle her own arguments may become a “tattle-tale,” dependent on her parents for help even with minor difficulties.

Parents who see that children cannot resolve arguments alone can offer suggestions. “Why don’t you both pretend you’re mommies and let your dolls be the babies?” If one child shouts something mean to another, parents should avoid saying, “That’s not nice!” and instead say, “You’re really mad because Tanya doesn’t want you to play now. Why don’t you tell her that?” Even if angry children ignore parents’ suggestions, the very presence of adults will have a restraining effect. Children tend to be less aggressive with each other when parents are nearby.

You can lessen your child’s involvement in arguments by avoiding situations that usually lead to problems. For instance, your child may play well with one child at a time, but not when a third joins in. Three can be a difficult number – two friends will often pair up and exclude or attack the third. If you can’t avoid this situation, give all three children frequent reminders about getting along and including each other in play. If your child consistently argues with one particular playmate, limit their time together or tell them, “You have to find a way to get along with each other or I’m not going to let you play together.” Your young child’s anger, no matter how momentary, is very real and very strong. Allow her emotions to be heard, but when necessary, help her control her anger by setting firm limits.

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